Book review: Musicians from a Different Shore – Mari Yoshihara

Working in a relatively under-researched field – cultural ethnographic approaches to classical music – has its pluses and its minuses. One of the minuses is the lack of studies to stimulate my own ideas and help clarify the important questions in the field. So I was disproportionately excited to hear from a colleague about a recent ethnography in this area which seems to be relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic – Mari Yoshihara’s Musicians From a Different Shore (Temple University Press, 2007), a study of Asian American classical musicians.

Yoshihara, as she explains in the autobiographical introduction, is a Japanese American academic who works on American Orientalism. She learned piano intensively as a child and teenager but let go of her pianist identity as she moved into academia. This book is therefore in part a revisiting of that earlier self, an exploration she ties in gracefully with the broader themes of the book. She defines Asian American musicians as immigrants from East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China) to the US, or Asian Americans who grew up in the US. Her starting point is the discourses about Asians as a ‘model minority’ in the US for their overrepresentation in higher education and many professional fields, which coexist alongside discourses about Asian musicians as being ‘automatons’ who have amazing technical skills but play like robots. She contrasts these ideas with other ways that Asians are positioned in the classical music world in the US – for example, they are under-represented in management and positions of power – taking this as an indication that being Asian counts as a ‘racial marker’ for these musicians. Interestingly, this goes against her informants’ own views that being Asian doesn’t make any difference to them as musicians… of which more later.

Chapter one, ‘Early lessons in globalization’ provides an historical overview of classical music in East Asia. Yoshihara demonstrates the bi-directional nature of the musical relationship, with classical music arriving in Asia in the late 19th and early 20th century through the institutions of the military, the church and schools, and subsequently being embraced and/or reviled as part of emerging nationalist discourses in the first part of the 21st century. After World War Two, however, the direction of musical transfer began to reverse, with Japan starting to manufacture pianos and export them to the US. Following the pianos came music teaching methods such as the Yamaha method which were developed as a marketing tool to sell more pianos (the Suzuki method being an exception, developed as a ‘program for developing democratic citizenry’ along nationalist lines, ‘rather than simply a method for music instruction’), and then finally in the 1960s and later there came an influx of musicians studying music in the US, many gaining highly visible successes in the classical music world.

Following this historical overview, the subsequent three chapters deal with race/ethnicity, gender, and class respectively. This approach of taking major sociological categories of analysis as a point of departure marks Yoshihara out as coming from a critical sociological rather than a musical academic background. While some of these chapters work better than others – the chapter on race/ethnicity being the most nuanced – Yoshihara is to be applauded for approaching theoretically complex areas with such a clear eye. For example, in the chapter on class and classical musicians, she describes how the musicians in her study come from very middle class backgrounds – partly because of the economic capital required to pay for costly tuition and instruments – but concludes that it is very difficult to analyse classical musicians ‘as class subjects in economic relationships’ as professionals, admitting perhaps that this frame of analysis is inadequate to contribute to understanding the social location of this group.

What does this incoherent class position mean for the concept of cultural capital, used by Bourdieu to denote the distinction conferred on those conversant with high culture such as classical music? Yoshihara argues that ‘as long as one does not pursue it professionally, classical music does function as a form of cultural capital that is then converted into economic and social capital… However for professional musicians conversion to other forms of capital happens only rarely and with great difficulty’. For me, this analysis raises questions. For example, something I’m thinking about in my own work is how classical music has come to be a repository of cultural capital. Yoshihara’s historical account of classical music arriving in East Asia suggests it works as cultural capital there because of its identification with Western-ness, a desired quality for East Asians. So, competence in classical music confers cultural capital, particularly on girls in the middle class marriage market (and yes, this is today’s marriage market, the 21st century).

For those East Asians who live or grow up in the US, however, how does classical music work as cultural capital? Yoshihara gives a few examples such as how going to Juilliard Pre-College (the Saturday school at Juilliard for secondary school students) looks good on college applications and gives opportunities for social networking later in life. She further argues, as noted above, that classical music distinction can indeed be converted into other forms of capital. This supports the conclusions that Bennett et al (2008) come to from their large-scale qualitative and quantitative study of culture and class in the UK; they argue that distinction in classical music, but not in other forms of music, works as a form of capital. This is a really fascinating concurrence which I am trying to explore in my research into young musicians in a (classical) youth choir and youth orchestra. I am interested in getting more into the nitty gritty of this concept – how is classical music recognised as a form of value, worthy of investment? Yoshihara’s study is an important contribution to this debate. Following much Bourdieu-inspired work, however, there is something of a lacuna in the institutional level of analysis which I would have liked more development of in the contemporary material – all the more surprising when she does such an excellent analysis in the historical chapter.

For the interpretation of the musicians themselves of their situation, however, we are back to classic Bourdieu. The musicians in this study emphasised the investment they had made in discipline and art, positioning themselves as living by artistic rather than material values – the field of cultural production being the economic field reversed. It’s always satisfying when empirical work fits so neatly with theory, and it is notable how despite the precarity of their work, these musicians still hold onto that ideal. I found myself thinking several times while reading this book that I would have liked to know the opinions of failed musicians as well as those who had succeeded in working in the field; I suspect this would make fascinating and horrific reading. However, Yoshihara’s study is certainly broad enough as it is; someone else looking for a topic of study can take that idea (you’re welcome).

The chapter on gender describes how the women in her study have to ‘navigate the sexual economy’ that shapes the classical music profession, for example finding a powerful mentor such as a (almost invariably male) conductor who will push their career. What I found most valuable in this chapter is her description of the ‘vulnerability’ of the teacher-student relationship: ‘the extremely intimate and intensely personal, emotional, as well as physical nature of private music lessons – in which students turn their whole selves over to their teachers’ judgement and guidance in many ways beyond musical knowledge and techniques – puts students in a particularly vulnerable position’.

While other authors (eg Creech:2012) have taken a pedagogic approach to examining one-to-one music lessons, I would suggest that Yoshihara’s few comments in this area point towards a crucial critical analysis that will shed light on the how this ‘sexual economy’ shapes both the well-known phenomenon of sexual relationships between music teachers and students; and the now-emerging issue of child sexual exploitation and abuse that this relationship arguably facilitates, with its privacy, intimacy and entrenched power imbalances.  It is well established (eg by Catherine Donovan, Liz Kelly and many others) that power imbalances (for example, age differences) between adults are a predictor for abusive or sexually exploitative relationships.  I would argue that the combination in classical music pedagogy of intense musical experiences, intimate one-to-one lessons, and the authority of the teacher or conductor, is a perfect recipe in which sexual exploitation or abuse can occur, and so examining structures of power and authority in classical music institutions and practices is an urgent point of investigation.

The chapter on race/ethnicity works in concert with the themes in chapter five, called ‘A Voice of One’s Own’ which takes up the thorny question of what is perceived as authenticity in classical music. Yoshihara describes a set of tensions which appear not to be recognised by the musicians themselves around discourses of the ‘universality’ of Western classical music versus its rootedness in Western culture. She describes a common response of other Americans (eg media commentators) being surprised that Asian musicians can play classical music ‘so well’ in managing to communicate the composer’s intentions of music that is historically and culturally perceived as Western. The musicians in her study tend to reject this discourse of perceiving them as somehow ‘foreign’ to the music they are playing, instead conceiving of their own identities as musicians first, and Asian Americans second. Their racial identity is thus a ‘description’ rather than an active identity, and Yoshihara also notes how young Asian American immigrant musicians gain a sense of identity and self-worth through their involvement in classical music that they are often missing in other aspects of their lives. This is therefore a clear depiction of these musicians as claiming this music as their own and rejecting the suggestion that it has some kind of ‘authentic’ Western rootedness.

Yet Yoshihara goes on to describe how her informants believed in the superiority of Western music over Asian music, being uniformly uninterested in the latter; she attributes this in a large part to conservatoire training but I think it is important to also examine the broader traditions and cultures which this training has emerged from (which my current work on youth classical music cultures in the UK will also contribute to). Furthermore, she quotes her informants’ views on the universality and superiority of classical music, for example ‘I think classical music is beyond the level of ethnic music’, a universalist position which as Yoshihara notes (in a rare moment of allowing herself to take a strong critical stance) echoes the neoliberal rhetoric of globalisation which functions as a guise for reinforcing Western and capitalist hegemony.

I want to make a further link here which she doesn’t explicitly make but to me is strongly implicit in the text. She describes her musicians as apolitical, noting that she was ‘shocked to find out how little many of my informants knew about current affairs’ for example, not being able to distinguish between Palestine and Pakistan. She links this depoliticised identity generally to the discourse of ‘art for art’s sake’ and a belief that classical music ‘is a pure, autonomous art form’. While Yoshihara rightly argues that ‘the seeming isolation of classical music from the rest of society should be a subject of historical, social, and cultural analysis rather than a basis for a re-inscription of such isolation through an academic division of labor’, I would go further and suggest that this depoliticised isolation needs to be seen as strongly political in itself – as a stance which works to preserve the cultural hegemony of western classical music. Despite arguments that it can no longer be seen as the dominant culture, classical music is clearly (when you look at state funding in many countries, not just Western ones) still the ‘legitimate’ culture, quite apart from the discussion of cultural capital above. Yoshihara’s work shows the strength of this ideology for musicians whom it even possibly works against (by ‘racially marking’ them as Asian in a world where the most powerful positions are still held by white men).

Yoshihara includes two chapters called ‘Voices’ which simply give profiles of a few of the musicians in her study, allowing their stories to illuminate the discussions in other chapters. This device works well to get across the wealth of her ethnographic data, which includes her own participation as a pianist in lessons, masterclasses and even piano competitions – it is maybe a pity that we don’t get to hear more of her own experience, as she almost exclusively talks about the experiences of her informants rather than her own. She does, however, reflect that ‘I have also struggled with a larger issue of the tension between academic analysis and the subjective experience of music’. As a practitioner-researcher in the same field, I recognise this tension very well, which for me shifts between portraying the immense satisfaction, joy and fulfilment people get from these practices, and the need for a critical cultural analysis which can seem to leave pleasure out of the picture.

Two final points: it is notable that a critical, cultural ethnography of classical music practices has come from an academic from totally outside of music studies who has not written on anything to do with music before.  Why are music researchers not doing this type of empirical work, or not very often? (with the honourable exceptions of Geoff Baker’s work on El Sistema (forthcoming), Rosie Perkins’ work on a UK conservatoire (forthcoming), Cottrell (2004), Green (1990,1997), Born (1995) and Kingsbury (1987)).  And to end with a strong endorsement; this book is very readable and highly engaging, and as such would be suitable to set for first-year undergraduates for an example of a music ethnography for a 21st century globalized world, but is equally satisfying as a comprehensive and thought-provoking study of a phenomenon that it wouldn’t have occurred to most of us to see as a topic of enquiry.


Bennett, T., Savage, M., Silva, E.B., Warde, A., Gayo-Cal, M., Wright, D., 2008. Culture, Class, Distinction, 1st ed. Routledge.
Born, G., 1995. Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Cottrell, S., 2004. Professional Music-Making in London: Ethnography and Experience, SOAS musicology series. Ashgate, Aldershot.
Creech, A., 2012. Interpersonal behaviour in one-to-one instrumental lessons: An observational analysis. British Journal of Music Education, FirstView, 1–21.
Green, L., 1990. Music on Deaf Ears: Musical Meaning, Ideology, Education. Manchester University Press.
Green, L., 1997. Music, Gender, Education. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Kingsbury, H., 1988. Music, Talent, and Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.


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7 responses to “Book review: Musicians from a Different Shore – Mari Yoshihara

  1. jamesbutterworth2

    Nive review Anna! It’d be great if we could all be posting reviews up here. This is a book I would never have got around to reading given the million and one other things that I NEED to read so it’s really useful to get your insights. I heard Geoff Baker speak at Royal Holloway yesterday about El Sistema and it’s really interesting the common conceptions and underlying ideologies that circulate internationally about classical music and orchesteas. I love to hear what kinds of things you are hearing from people in the field! I presume you know about Rachel Beckles-Wilson’s work on WEDO? I guess that’s another example of an ethnographic and critical approach to classical music though dealing with other issues too…

    • Thanks James – yes I forgot to mention Rachel Beckles-Willson’s work – must add that reference in (the beauty of blogging being that you can keep editing posts forever!).

  2. chloezadeh

    Thanks for this Anna (and sorry for taking so long to comment). It sounds like a fascinating book and I was interested to hear your take on it. I like your (Bourdieu-esque) observation that insisting on the apolitical nature of music is itself a political move. That seems like a very important avenue to explore.

  3. Anna,
    I just came across this for the first time. Thank you so much for writing such a detailed, thoughtful review. I learned a lot from your reading of it. I hope we will have a chance to discuss these topics in person sometime soon!

  4. Thank you Mari! Your book was a great pleasure to read. I heard about it from Christina Scharff, with whom I’m organising the conference ‘Classical music as contemporary socio-cultural practice: critical perspectives’, which you will remember we invited you to – it’s such a long way to come so we knew it was unlikely you would be able to make it, but I hope there will be another opportunity for us to meet. Do let us know if you will be in the UK any time.


    • Anna,
      Yes, I’m really bummed that I can’t go to your conference this time. But please do keep me in the loop–I’d love to come to London at some point and learn about your and your colleagues’ research!

  5. Pingback: Konferans Değerlendirmesi: “Asya Türkleri ve Afganistan’da Popüler Kültür: İcra ve İnanç” – Anakronik

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